Notes from SAIS President Dr. Kirk Walker
The day after the recent national elections, someone contacted me and asked if I had any advice about how schools might address student concerns in the aftermath of such a divisive election. On one level, the question puzzled me. Historically, there are numerous past elections that were equally (if not more) divisive. In fact, the Broadway hit Hamilton references one of our most vitriolic ones (and they didn't even have 24/7 media exposure then). The election of Andrew Jackson became so negative and so personal that many felt that the opposition's accusations hastened his wife's premature death. And of course, there is the election that precipitated the Civil War. Unfortunately, politics is often a "blood sport." There is much money and power at stake, and disinformation (or "fake news") is a staple of the political campaign toolbox.
This past election may seem atypical in recent memory, but it is not unique. And the campaign itself is merely a manifestation of much deeper societal issues ... issues that challenge students and educators every day and not just every four years. There are two that stand out for me:
- Students swim in an ocean of unsubstantiated "information" every day. Some of it is unintentionally biased; some of it is deliberately distorted. How do we help students digest volumes of data and discern fact from various shades of fiction? (Edweek offered a recent article on this subject.)
- On the national stage, reasoned discussion has been eclipsed by media posturing and name-calling. In the absence of high-profile role models, how do we teach students teamwork and the art of compromise?
I do not have the answers to these questions. Or what answers I might have are incomplete. But I believe that the answers are in our schools, and I invite you to share them with me. After all, that is what teamwork means.
The 10th grade son of a friend recently contracted a rare virus that attacked his heart. In less than two weeks, he went from being a healthy adolescent to the number one person on the list for a heart transplant. His school community has enveloped him and his family in loving support. While the specifics of his situation may be unique, it is in many ways not unlike those moments that have occurred in virtually all of your schools. In some cases, it may have been a health-related challenge; and in others it may have been the toll of a natural disaster. Some had happy endings; some not as happy.
A favorite teacher of mine once said: "Teaching is kin to the ministry." And there are points in all school administrators' careers when they are called upon to provide pastoral care and comfort to their communities, when they are expected to know when to embrace, when to sit in quiet support, when to provide leadership and direction, and when to speak words of healing.
These are not skills that most learn in their educational training. Instead they learn how to plan, organize, gather data and make decisions, evaluate faculty and programs, raise money and build facilities, market their schools, establish budgets, and avoid legal liability. And effective leaders must continually sharpen and expand their understanding in all of these areas ... and more.
But in these very human moments of sadness and suffering, great leaders reveal their own humanity. At the deepest level, they draw strength and power from the values that called them to the profession: a genuine love of people and a commitment to serve others.
At the recent SAIS Annual Conference, so many of you were engaged in enhancing your ability to direct and improve your schools. I was impressed by your dedication to lifelong learning. But in conversations with you, I was even more impressed by the way that so many of you reflect those emotional values that will serve your schools so well in times of crises. You don't just manage; you care.
Fall is football season. But it is also conference season. A host of state, national, and special-interest conferences are scheduled. And every school will have such a richness of choices that they could "tailgate" every weekend at a different venue. What every school doesn't have is a richness of time. So decisions have to be made.
Arguably my opinion is biased, but it is the only one that I have. For well over a decade before I was an employee of SAIS, I was a regular participant at the SAIS conference. Why? The speakers were informative; the sessions were helpful; the focus was regional; and the size was large enough to be interesting but small enough to be manageable.
But the real reason was the community. Not all the schools were like mine; in fact some were very different. But they all somehow felt like family. Most of the people I met over the years were certainly bright and capable, but the thing that impressed me the most was that the overwhelming majority (who came from many states and a wide range of schools) all seemed to understand that it wasn't about them. It was about their mission, their students, their faculty, and their families. I was refreshed and inspired to be in the company of those people.
I look forward to seeing many of you at the SAIS Annual Conference, October 22-24 in Atlanta. It promises to be a great "game."
Over the past year, I had the privilege of visiting dozens of our member schools. In addition to receiving a tour of the campus and learning about the program, I had the pleasure of meeting many of the individuals who are making a critical difference in our schools.
I was impressed by the wide variety and range of schools in the SAIS family: from schools with 50 students to ones with thousands; from schools with budgets under $600,000 to those with budgets well over $30 million; from schools housed in a small building to others with campuses and facilities that rival those of many colleges; and from schools serving the developmentally delayed to schools offering programs designed to challenge the most gifted students. SAIS is a very big tent.
But what impressed me even more were the schools' similarities. Apart from the obvious differences of locations, demographics, and resources, it was apparent that all of them share certain key characteristics:
- Their missions guide them.
- The well-being of students is a central focus.
- Emphasis is placed on both academic and character development.
- Best practices serve as a benchmark.
- Continual improvement is a priority.
Beyond these common characteristics, all of them are actively pursuing ways to adjust their programs to the shifting desires of the marketplace, while still remaining true to their core missions. And all of them recognize the critical importance that thoughtful planning plays in the sustainability and health of an institution.
Wherever a school might be in this process, SAIS stands ready to assist. While our current accreditation process and our various programs have been designed to meet the immediate and emerging needs of our membership, we realize that new challenges require new approaches. Just as our current offerings have been enhanced and refined by the ongoing feedback of our members, we will continue to rely on your suggestions as we develop the next generation of programs.
Together we grow.
When you have personally lived enough history, the past regularly reverberates into your present. As I watch the tragedies and conflicts that have seemed to dominate our national conversation this summer, I am reminded of another summer.
In September of 1968, I was beginning my senior year of high school. And as we entered the classroom that fall, there was a sense of foreboding about the future direction of the country ... and the world. The previous months had clearly revealed a social and political system under stress. The Vietnam War was in its second decade, and U.S. Military presence was at its peak. Martin Luther King had been murdered by a white supremacist, triggering a series of deadly riots across the country. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was killed by a man who resented his position on the Middle East. Two months after that, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and ended that country's movement toward independence. And in that same month, protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned bloody as police and demonstrators clashed.
What was very apparent as we began our senior year was how much the hot wind of frustration and hate was blowing across the country. Calls for calm were often met with cynicism. Anger was the default response. Yeats' poem The Second Coming seemed to capture the turbulence of the time.
It would be years before our society would be able to regain a semblance of balance. And I cannot help but believe that education played the critical role in restoring that balance by helping all of us to reimagine a world where dialogue replaced violence, where understanding replaced fear, and where respect replaced prejudice. In the end, those may have been the most important lessons that our teachers taught us that year ... or any year.
It seems to me that regardless of what year it may be or what challenges the year may present, educators remain our greatest bridge builders to the future.
Thank you for the crucial work you do. It has never been more important.
When I was a head of school, people would often ask me: What do you do in the summer when the teachers and the students are gone? It was a reasonable question, but I couldn't help but smile. Heads of school know that the summers are not less busy ... just a different kind of busy. Thankfully, there may be fewer calls about "concerns", fewer personality conflicts (at least they are happening somewhere else), and fewer issues that demand immediate attention.
The summers are about processing what happened and trying to determine how to keep it from happening again or making sure that it happens often in the future. Summers are about moving classrooms, re-configuring programs and people, new hires, new construction, and renovations while running camps and a host of other programs. Some summers feel like everything in the school is being taken apart and put back together ... in a space of a few weeks. Summers (like school years) are about growth ... just in a different key.
What is too easily omitted from the summer schedule is a critical activity: the personal growth of the school's leaders. Too often the summer is a missed opportunity for sharing with colleagues, for getting some time away from the demands of today and the days ahead, and for exploring new ideas. For leaders, the capacity to renew others is inextricably tied to their own self-renewal. So this summer, don't let the campus be the only thing refurbished and refreshed. Read a book, take a vacation, explore a new hobby, attend a workshop. The entire school community will be the beneficiary.
Several weeks ago, a friend from high school died suddenly. Within hours, an email exchange began among several dozen of our graduating class. We were stunned and saddened at the passing of this beloved individual as literally dozens in our class shared one tribute after another: each one more heartfelt than the last.
His death reminded us of our own mortality ... but it also reminded us of something else. After several days, the topic of the emails shifted from expressions of grief for our departed friend and to shared thoughts about our times together as a class, our shared adventures, the way that our alma mater had shaped our lives, and the kinship that we still felt for each other after all of these years (47 to be exact).
My experience is not unique, but it speaks to the profound impact that schools can have on defining and enhancing community. We teach skills (many designed to last a lifetime) ... but we also bond lives together. And those bonds become powerful lessons taught and re-taught for decades.
In this commencement season, I have no doubt that your graduating classes have been well-prepared for the next step in their journey. And I have no doubt that most of them are grateful for your efforts. What they do not yet realize is that your school has given them a gift that they may not fully appreciate for another 47 years.
The lead article on succession planning is a good reminder to all of us (regardless of our age) that at some point we will be "succeeded." And the responsibility for how "successful" that transition will be resides not just with the trustees but also with the HOS.
The years ahead will see a growing number of current HOS reach retirement age as the "boomers" finally graduate. Who will take their place represents both an opportunity and a challenge. The role of HOS has become increasingly complex. It is no longer sufficient to be an academic leader ... although it is still required. Today's HOS must also be financially and legally savvy, a strategic planner, a facilities manager, a great communicator, a media spokesperson, a personnel negotiator, an expert problem solver, etc.
Many of the retiring, long-term heads acquired many of these skills "on-the-job" as their roles became more complicated and their responsibilities more diverse. How will the next generation of school leaders acquire these skills before they are thrust into situations which demand them?
SAIS recognizes this problem and is expanding its leadership training options. But standing heads can also do much to train and mentor their administrative team. One HOS, with whom I recently spoke, holds a leadership training workshop for his team annually. He acknowledged that often the preparation results in their assuming larger leadership roles elsewhere. But in spite of that, he insisted: "We are in the business of growth. We seek to give our students the confidence and skills to move beyond our campus. Shouldn't we be called to do the same for our staff?"
Well said, my friend.
A quick review of the various listservs sponsored by SAIS provides an interesting snapshot of the concerns of day-to-day operations. One contributor asks about the appropriate grade for school-sponsored dances. Another wonders about cellphone policies; another about athletic cut policies. Ideas are traded about whether or not to have bells between classes, about whether to initiate a school uniform, and about graduation ceremonies.
I was initially struck by the similarities from school to school and by how positive this exchange of ideas can be. I was also impressed by the attention paid to each phase of operations. I was reminded that decisions made and actions taken in schools have meaning and consequences. Each of them has the power either to support the school's mission or to represent a deviation from it. In the course of a school day, week, or year, everything potentially matters. The schedule makes a statement ... as does the dress code, the traditions, the ceremonies, the curricula, the choice of extracurricular offerings, grading practices, etc.
Conversations about strategic thinking usually revolve around discussions about the future: what will need to be done in five to ten years and what will be needed to accomplish it? But the truth is that educators (whether they are in the classroom or in the conference room) are making decisions every day which carry strategic significance. Today's decisions impact today's students, and those students represent a more powerful future for the school than the generations that have yet to be admitted.
In mission-driven schools, there is no decision (however trivial it may appear) that is not an opportunity to reflect that mission. Freedom to be intentional is both the strength and the daily challenge of independent schools. I applaud your attention to detail.
In this issue we recognize and congratulate the recipients of this year's Stephen P. Robinson Collaboration Grants. As was the case last year, the review committee faced a difficult challenge selecting from a host of impressive applications.
When the SAIS Board of Trustees created the grants two years ago, they wanted to emphasize the important role that collaboration needs to play in independent schools. It is widely understood that the ability to collaborate is an essential skill that today's students need to possess. And effective collaborations can also involve many other critical skills: communication, creative thinking, flexibility, teamwork, etc.
Progress is being made. Schools are finding ways to provide more opportunities for student collaboration in their classrooms and are developing strategies for evaluating student progress in this area.
Ironically, while schools may feel that the skill is vitally important for their students, those same institutions find it is often a challenge to develop their own abilities to collaborate with other institutions ... particularly other schools that may be primarily perceived as competitors. Independent schools, by their nature, are "independent" with their own unique missions and visions. They often prefer to "go it alone;" and though they may encourage students to "play well with others," their own efforts resemble "parallel play" at best. Like countries and political parties, schools may have difficulty working together. But in a world of limited resources and marketing challenges, collaborations may be the most cost-efficient ways to introduce new programs or to expand existing ones. Working with another school or with a local agency can potentially reap exponentially greater benefits than what a single school can achieve on its own.
At times, it makes sense for independent schools to be interdependent as well.
Several years ago, a friend told me that he thought that independent schools were "counter cultural." As a child of the '60s, I was at first puzzled by his remark. My college roommate was one of the celebrants at Woodstock; and though he was a graduate of a prestigious Northeastern preparatory school, I did not equate his behavior at that concert with the aspirations of his alma mater.
Times change, cultures shift, and so do definitions. And after reflection, I realized how true my friend's comment was.
In many ways, independent schools are swimming against a cultural current. And the current seems to be getting stronger. The disintegration of the family structure, the ebbing influence of religious institutions, and the pervasive influence of pop culture continue to define the world of Generation Z. In this milieu, the role of the school has never been more critical, nor have the demands placed on the schools ever been more extensive. For one-third of the day, five-sevenths of the week, three-fourths of the year, for 13 to 17 years, schools are the great and only common denominator for our youth, and therefore, our nation's future.
Thankfully, in a culture that seems increasingly divisive, your schools emphasize teamwork. Where distrust and anger seem sadly commonplace, you emphasize hope and respect. In a culture that is often quick to judge, you encourage patience and understanding. In a culture of the superficial, you offer depth. And in a world of sound bite exchanges, you embrace thoughtful debate. As odd as it may sound, you are "counter cultural."
I am confident that most (if not all) of you became educators because you believed that teaching students to think and to care was the best way to enhance their lives and to make the world better. It was and still is. As we begin 2016, keep swimming.
When I was young (I was once…really), there was a toy store in town that had a big sign announcing how many shopping days until Christmas. In those days, many businesses were closed on Sundays (“blue laws”), so it required some calculation on my part to determine how many days were truly left until Christmas. In any case, I remember the sense of anticipation, the feeling that every day that passed brought me closer to that event. My energies were focused on the future, not on the present.
The big day would arrive and quickly pass; and within a week, the sign at the toy store would start the countdown all over again. School calendars are a lot like that. We anticipate the beginning of school. We then mark the days until the first play or game or holiday, until the second semester, until the next play or game or holiday, until summer … And without thinking much about it, the days, months, and years pass quickly. By the time we reach one event, we are already looking toward the next. The “countdown” keeps resetting.
This time of year, the calendar is crammed with both professional and personal activities ... a long list that we are "checking twice." It is so easy to focus on getting to the end of that list and on meeting all of our upcoming responsibilities that we forget to appreciate the joy and excitement surrounding us.
So in a mindful spirit, let's pause, take a deep breath … or two … or three if needed. Let’s enjoy the gift of the present and celebrate the blessings of our calling.
Peace be with you in this special season.
Our thanks to all of you who attended the annual conference ... more than 300 of you representing 165 schools in 12 states, plus Canada and Mexico. Hopefully, you found it to be informative, engaging, and enjoyable. If you have not already, I encourage you to complete the post-conference survey. Your thoughts will be very helpful to us in planning the 2016 event.
One of the keynote speakers commented that while the SAIS conference is a large one, it retains the feel of a small one. From my perspective, that is a real positive and a nice reflection of the wonderful work the staff (particularly Lori and Anna) do in creating that sense of smallness. It is my hope that however large (in numbers) the conference may become, it will continue to feel like a family reunion ... preferably the reunion of a family that gets along well with each other.
As we gathered together, I was reminded of what a special group was assembled in that place: women and men not only devoted to education but also devoted to a vision of education that embraces the whole learner. However, I was also reminded of the challenges that all of our schools share in varying degrees: admissions, fundraising, governance, financial sustainability, strategic planning, etc. Since our association's goal is to support you in your mission, we remain committed to helping each of our member schools address these challenges. In a climate where governments are increasingly interested in regulating schools, we are committed to protecting our independence. In a field where teachers, administrators, and schools tend to operate in isolation, we are committed to connecting professionals for mutual benefit. And finally, in the rapidly changing world of research, we are committed to keeping you informed about the latest findings and trends.
It is just what families do for each other.
I hope that your school year has started smoothly and that you are enjoying the spirit of community. As students, parents, faculty, and staff return to our campuses, we are reminded that we are more than academic institutions; we truly are communities bound by our commitments to change lives and build futures. It is also the case that these communities are busy places ... very busy. I am confident that your days are already filled with classes, faculty meetings, assemblies, field trips, staff meetings, athletic contests, trustee meetings, parents' nights, alum gatherings, and more meetings. Racing (often ricocheting) between the demands on your time, it can be a challenge to set aside moments for personal reflection and professional renewal.
Nevertheless, I hope that you will take the time to join the SAIS community for our 2015 Annual Conference
, October 17-19, in Atlanta. It will be an excellent opportunity to learn from each other and from various experts in a wide variety of sessions, as well as a wonderful time to renew our associations with colleagues and friends. In addition to the impressive slate of conference speakers and presenters, I would also like to extend a special invitation to our heads of school and their board members for the Board/Head Retreat
on October 17, which will be led by our long-time friend and colleague, Pat Bassett.
I look forward to our time together.
For those of us in education, the new year starts in August and not in January. Now is the time of our new beginnings. Now is the time that we make our resolutions. Now is the time filled with expectation and excitement. Now is the time when all things are possible (at least until the first grading period). As in past years, we offer our guidance and encouragement to incoming students and cautiously hope for their enthusiastic response. That uncertainty is the challenge of change.
Late summer is our January, and our god Janus looks backward and forward too. Reflecting on the year past, the joys and the sadness, the dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled, we look forward to the promise of a new year and to the opportunity to equip the next generation for the future - and what an interesting future it will be.
For me it is a sobering thought that no student currently in an independent school has ever lived in a world without cell phones, social networking, search engines, and online shopping. For them, Google has always been a verb. For them, watching pictures of Pluto sent from a small satellite millions of miles away is just another item in today's news. The pace of change is staggering.
And we are also agents of that change. We want our students not only to adapt to change but also to understand, anticipate, manage, and shape the inevitable change that swirls around them. As educators, that is our gift to their future; that is our resolution for their new year.
It is also a time of change at SAIS. During my first week as president, the board began the development of a five-year strategic plan which you will be hearing about soon. Like you, I am excited about the year ahead and the challenges and opportunities that await.
To the work all of us are called to do, welcome back.